Many atheists concede that if God does not exist then the universe is both purposeless and meaningless. The late William Provine penned that “The universe cares nothing for us and we have no ultimate meaning in life” (1). And as Jon Casmir would agree, “There is no meaning of life. The whole thing is a gyp, a never-ending corridor to nowhere” (2).
Many atheists have therefore attempted to construct a subjective purpose and meaning to life. Michael Shermer claimed that “we can develop ways to make us feel better; feeling like we have a purpose” (3). On this view, there is no purpose to life beyond what one can give him/herself.
Opponents of atheism have not been shy to point this out. They believe that this leaves the atheist with fairly significant problems, which can range to atheism being established upon irrational foundations to atheists simply being unable to live out their beliefs consistently. Philosopher and Christian theologian William Lane Craig is one voice to do so and in one lively debate criticizes the idea that atheists can just make subjective meaning for themselves when, at bottom, atheism doesn’t allow for any meaning and purpose whatsoever. Craig remarks,
“This just is to say that we can pretend that the universe exists for some purpose and this is just make-belief. This is the subjective illusion of purpose. But there is on this view no objective purpose for the universe. And we, of course, would never deny that you could develop subjective purposes for your life. The point is on atheism they are all illusory. And that is why I agree with Richard Dawkins when he said, “at bottom this is an emotional question rather than a rational one.” I wish I had the courage to say that. I am convinced that people adopt atheism primarily for emotional rather than rational purposes” (4).
The atheist, argues Craig, shows a great practical inconsistency here which leads him to conclude that atheism is irrational,
“But you cannot live as if your life is purposeless and meaningless. And therefore you adopt subjective illusions of purpose to make your life livable. And that is why I not only think atheism is irrational but it is profoundly unlivable. You cannot live consistently and purposefully within the context of an atheistic worldview” (5).
Indeed this is a difficulty prominent historic atheists have realized. Friedrich Nietzsche, famous for declaring the death of God, lamented that such a realization of God’s demise not only did away with any sense of morality but also invited despair or meaninglessness because those beliefs pertaining to religion that mattered greatly to human beings and that gave their lives meaning could no longer be believed. As such, for atheists like Nietzsche, nihilism, the total abandonment of all meaning, moral value, and purpose to life, was the only rational atheistic perspective. But as critics like Craig have pointed out, atheists also possess an (inconsistent) internal desire to want to experience a purposeful and meaningful existence. As such, rather than living consistently with the depths of nihilism, the same atheist will construct meaning and delude himself into believing that his activities and beliefs are meaningful.
The atheist could retort to Craig, and perhaps rightly so, that the likes of happiness, meaning, and purpose are not requisites to the truth. After all, perhaps human beings are just that unfortunate beast to finally discover that life is indeed meaningless and that this is just the way the universe is. The difference between the human and a cow is little more than the fact that the former has come to know this truth whereas the latter just exists in total obliviousness.
Religionists like Craig do not seem to share this dilemma. Religions avoid this because they establish a connection between human beings and a deity in a sort of human-God(s) relationship of ultimate significance. These religions typically ascribe meaning and purpose to life. Whereas on atheism life obliterates at death, religions provide hope in an afterlife in which human daily affairs and decisions really matter beyond this universe itself. It is likely this latter fact that religions are so primary to human beings. In many cases, and perhaps for most religionists, it is not whether or not a religion’s core precepts can be shown to be true, but whether or not those religions fulfill that internal yearning for meaning and purpose which can only be found in religious modes of thought.
1. Provine, W. 1998. Scientists, Face it! Science and Religion are Incompatible. Available.
2. Jon Casimir quoted by John Marsden in This I Believe (1995). p. 48.
3. William Lane Craig at his Best (3min: 27sec). Available.
4. William Lane Craig at his Best (3min: 30sec – 4min: 15sec). Available
5. William Lane Craig at his Best (4min: 20sec – 4min: 40sec)Available